Surrounded by acres of rolling hills and views stretching as far as the eyes can see, a home made to look like the ruins of an abandoned farmstead rests peacefully on the wild prairie, as if it’s been there for decades.
It was an inspired project for the team of Bob Torson, founder and principal architect of Robert Torson Architects, and general contractor Butch Simpson Electric. After discovering long-vacant farm buildings and weathered foundations of brick and stone during the initial visit to the property, just north of Omaha in the Ponca Hills area, the vision for the project became clear: to preserve the past and the land’s tranquil nature.
Originally, the plan was to incorporate the existing farm buildings, once home to a vibrant, working farm and show-jumping horse facility, into the home’s construction. But as anyone who’s built a house can attest to, not everything goes according to plan. Upon closer inspection, some of the structures were deemed unstable and unusable. A number of chicken coops, hog barns, a machine shed, and shelter for animals in disrepair were demolished. (Where possible, timber was salvaged for use elsewhere on the property.) The plan was amended, with the new goal being to recreate some of these buildings using new materials.
Mimicking the original ruins, the centerpiece of the home, a two-story octagonal turret that houses the kitchen, was created using salt-glazed red brick wrapping diagonally around and at other times extending from the structure to create the effect of a giant crack cascading down from the roof to the ground. Torson worked with artist Michael Morgan, who specializes in brickwork, to achieve the design idea.
“[Morgan] literally makes every one of those bricks himself,” Torson said. “So when you look at them, they’re not standard in any way. If you look closely, they’re all completely different. They’re meant to have a semi-rough exterior and look like they sort of fell off.”
Designing windows to fit the custom three-foot-thick brickwork encompassing the turret was challenging because Torson wanted the inside of the house to respond to the lot and the land itself, and windows were a big part of that.
“The inside of the house has a lot of transparency, not only to let the sunshine in but to also have certain views of interest.”
Many windows extend all the way to the floor, providing unobstructed views of the outdoors. In certain areas of the home such as the dining room, which has a glass ceiling and walls, views extend all the way to the Missouri River Valley.
“When you’ve got a big glass wall, you’re out a ways from the main structure of the house, which allows you to look left and right instead of just looking straight out at one angle,” Torson said.
Another way the outdoors was brought in was by using materials like brick, timber, and stone, found on the exterior of the house in the home’s interior design as well. Most of the flooring that runs through the first floor is made of stones of all different shapes and sizes in shades of brown and green, mirroring the colors used in the outdoor landscaping.
Even though the house is grand, innovative, and almost avant-garde, it comes off as quite comfortable and casual, in part because the earth tone prairie palette provides much-needed warmth. The brick from outside continues inside with a fountain wall, as well as a fireplace and kitchen island made of salt-glazed brick with bits of melted glass, also made by Morgan.
With an open concept and soaring ceilings that sometimes span two floors, the house feels voluminous. However, cedar planks matching the columns outside were used on the ceilings in the living room and kitchen to warm the space and provide a more intimate, homey feel.
The house is rustic and traditional, but also slightly modern at the same time, somehow managing to blend right into the prairie like it’s been there all along.
Torson’s work on the property, which also includes a party barn, a horse barn, riding areas, maintenance buildings, and more, continues today. “The home and entire grounds are being embellished continuously,” he explained. “They all go together to be a place for family to work, live, and flourish.”
It’s challenging work Torson and crew are happy to take on.
This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.